Olympic dressage has nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with equestrian and equine athleticism and finesse. As the world's top dressage competitors prepare for the Summer Olympic Games, onlookers may ask about this intriguing equestrian discipline.
What is dressage?
Technically, the word "dressage" means "training." As an equestrian pursuit, dressage is a gymnastic endeavor, in which the horse is conditioned to respond to the rider with agility, balance, collection, compliance, impulsion, obedience, rhythm, and suppleness.
Originally based on military horse training practices, preparing the horse for the battlefield, dressage movements are intended to maximize the horse's own natural movement. The rider uses his hands, legs and seat to guide the horse.
In competition, dressage is a formal affair. Equestrians at the highest level wear top hats and shadbellies (essentially cut-away tuxedo coats, as one might see at black-tie affairs). Underneath, they don white button-down shirts, white stock tie cravats, and white equestrian breeches with leather full-seat inserts. Gleaming black tall riding boots complete the look.
How are dressage competitions structured?
One horse-and-rider pair appears in the equestrian arena at a time, executing a strictly dictated routine, known as a dressage test. Olympic competitors perform at the Grand Prix level, pinnacle of dressage, demonstrating the most difficult exercises of the discipline.
Grand Prix dressage offers something of an equine ballet, as the rider cues the horse to do extended and collected gaits (in the trot and the canter), half-passes, the passage, the piaffe, pirouettes (in the canter), sequential flying lead changes (in the canter), and more.
The rider guides the horse through the prescribed movements at specified locations throughout the equestrian arena, which is marked with a series of letters to indicate these spots. The rider's aim in dressage is to make the entire routine appear effortless, even as the horse displays the most advanced exercises.
Men and women compete in the same divisions in dressage.
How is dressage scored?
In the Olympic Games, as in all major international dressage shows, the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) oversees the competition.
Seven international judges observe each horse-and-rider pair, scoring every movement on a 10-point scale. Scribes track judges' scores and comments. Totals are converted to percentages, and the highest dressage score wins.
The Summer Olympic Games feature six gold medal competitions, with individual and team medals awarded in dressage, eventing and show jumping.
Linda Ann Nickerson, horse breeder and equestrian, brings decades of experience and a globally-minded Midwestern perspective to a host of topics, balancing human interest with history, hard facts and often humor.
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